Barbara Jones on Sending Missionaries of Every Color to Every Tribe & Nation
A recent Barna report produced in partnership with International Mission Board, The Future of Missions, takes a closer look at what’s keeping young Christians from wholeheartedly engaging with global ministry. While seven out of 10 Christians would agree that mission work is “very valuable,” young adults seem less convinced of mission’s urgency and efficacy. Further, younger Christians of color are more skeptical than their white peers of international missions.
This Q&A from The Future of Missions offers insights from Barbara Jones on how faith leaders and parents can encourage rising generations of believers to send Christians of every color on mission for Christ while also addressing mission’s checkered past.
Barbara D . Jones serves as a consultant to and on behalf of Mission to the World (MTW). She assists in leading mobilization efforts toward diversity and aids the broader Church in developing cultural competencies. After serving with Cru’s “Here’s Life Inner City” ministry and with the Evangelical Covenant Church, the Lord broadened her thinking about local and global missions by calling her to serve with World Relief, where Jones developed “Walk in My Shoes: A Refugee Experience.” From there she came to MTW, where she assisted in redesigning the missionary assessment process. For over 24 years, she has coached, trained and discipled parishioners and missionaries and has led mission teams around the world. Jones is passionate about the need for the Church to create space through discipleship for the next generation of diverse laborers. She is married to Ernest T. Jones and is a mother and grandmother.
Barna: Millennials and now Gen Z are the most ethnically diverse generations in U.S. history. Is the missionary workforce likewise diversifying? Why is this important?
Barbara: Mission-sending agencies realize how urgent it is to mobilize the next generation of missionaries, including Millennials and Gen Z. Many also want to incorporate strategies to raise up more diverse missionaries. But the workforce is diversifying at an extremely slow pace—sometimes because the sending agency lacks cross-cultural competencies, sometimes because they haven’t developed opportunities for younger leaders or are not equipped to develop younger leaders, sometimes because they need to evaluate and revamp their systems and structures. We have to be honest with ourselves and make desperately needed changes if we want to raise up the next generation of laborers for the harvest.
Barna: Data show that Christians of color in younger generations are somewhat more skeptical of international missions than white believers. What are some ways that people of color can help the whole Christian community reckon with our past and move faithfully into the future?
Barbara: In many of our American mission sending agency contexts, some level of assimilation or tokenism has been required of people of color. That is, in order to participate in the mission, we had to speak like, dress like, sing songs like and express theology like majority culture. Over time, that assimilation has created missed opportunities for white majority culture to know us as complete and whole image-bearers of God who have beautifully diverse ways of living out, experiencing and expressing the gospel.
Millennial and Gen Z Christians have watched older generations—many of us for good and godly reasons—give up or stifle important parts of ourselves. They understand the cost, and many are refusing to be so compliant, choosing not to serve in and thereby perpetuate painful systems. And these systems become ever more irrelevant to them, as witnessed by their increasing distance from Christian institutions.
I long for a day when people of color can authentically and unapologetically bring our whole selves to the missions table. As people made in the imago Dei, we, by God’s grace, bring unique and needed gifts to his Kingdom. And for such a time as this, many of us offer a prophetic voice that can aid his Body in reaching local and global contexts in ways that broaden Kingdom work.
This would require all of us to:
- Honestly address fears. What is keeping us from accepting people of color as equal image bearers? History is one thing that impacts our ability to do this.
- Develop cultural competencies. Do we believe our way of doing things is or should be “the norm”? We must be willing to look in the mirror and address issues of power and control—and then make room for others.
- Be humble enough to be discipled. Are we being led or taught by a person of color? Marginalized people have essential wisdom for growing into Christlikeness when it comes to things like a theology of suffering, cross-cultural adaptation, dependence on God, discipleship and so on. As a Church on mission, we need this wisdom!
Barna: What do you say to a young person who expresses reservations about global missions, especially when it comes to respecting other cultures?
Barbara: If they are a fellow person of color expressing reservations, I say, “I totally understand.” I acknowledge that colonialism in missions is real. But the mission of the Church remains, however imperfectly it has been implemented in the past.
In my experience, many young Christians have more first-hand experience engaging other cultures; there is at least a willingness to learn. Many have not only found themselves directly engaging with various cultures; they also live in a digitally diverse space where they encounter diversity every minute. While there is always room for growth, accepting and respecting different cultures is often welcomed by this generation—which is all the more reason the Church needs them to take up the mantle of missions.